Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai : The Father of Indian Space Program

 Tribute to  Dr. Vikram Sarabhai : The Father of Indian Space Program

The year long birth centenary celebrations of the father of the Indian Space programme and the architect of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) - Dr Vikram Sarabhai (12th Aug, 2019 - 12th August, 2020), which had kick started with the inaugural function of this event last year on 12th August, 2019 - the birth centenary year of Dr Sarabhai - at Gujarat University Convention Centre, Ahmadabad, comes to a close today, without much fanfare owing to the Covid pandemic.

The opening program of the birth centenary celebration of Dr Sarabhai - organised  on 12th August,2019 - was tele addressed by the Honourable Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, to an August gathering of scientists from DAE, ISRO, PRL and students and heads of institution. During the year long Sarabhai centenary celebrations, several programmes were organised across the country and one of the significant program - one day Vikram Sarabhai Centenary conference - was organised by the Nehru Science Centre in collaboration with the National Centre for Science Communicators, at the Nehru Science Centre, Mumbai. Leading scientists from ISRO, DAE and other key policy makers from other  organisations - Dr R Chidambaram, Dr AS Kiran Kumar, Dr S Banerjee, Prof Chitre, Dr Mallika Sarabhai, Dr Kiran Karnik, Shri Ashok Dalwai and Dr AP Jayaraman spoke on the occasion. During the concluding program of this conference, on behalf of the organisers of the conference, I had announced to the audience that the Nehru Science Centre will dedicate an exhibition - Hall of Aerospace- to Dr Sarabhai and this new exhibition will be launched on his 101st birthday. Most unfortunately due to the disruption caused by the Covid pandemic, we are unable to open this exhibition today, as promised. However, the Hall of Aerospace Exhibition, which is supported by the Airports Authority of India, is nearing completion and it will be opened as soon as the Covid situation improves and we are permitted to open our science centre for public. We are certain that the Hall of Aerospace exhibition will be a befitting tribute to Dr Vikram Sarabhai. 

Dr. Sarabhai died at a very young age of just 52 years at Kovalam, Kerala on December 30, 1971. Most shockingly and in a very rare coincidence Dr. Sarabhai’s predecessor Chairman of DAE, Dr Homi Bhabha  too has died at a very young age in an air crash in 1966. Just before his untimely death Sarabhai had witnessed firing of a Russian rocket at Thumba and had inaugurated the Thumba railway station before retiring for the night, which most tragically was to be his last. There are several controversies doing the rounds regarding his tragic and untimely death, which compare his death in sleep to that of Lal Bahadur Shastri ji. However, I shall not delve into this emotive issue. 

Unity in Diversity - the often used phrase for India that all of us have grown up living with - is one of the greatest attributes of our country, which is inseparable to this great nation, notwithstanding the unending differences and diversity that exist in our country that gets played out during the heated debates on the news channels. Unity in Diversity, an unique attribute  of India - the worlds largest democracy - is vividly visible and is exemplified through the medium of Cinema, Cricket and Chilly, which connects we Indians, without exception, to one common Indian nationhood. The efforts Dr Vikram Sarabhai, the founding father of the Indian space program and creator of ISRO, has now resulted in the fourth common connecting chord for all of us to rejoice - achievements of ISRO. The evidence of this was vividly seen when the entire nation was seen united in hailing the successful launch of the Chandrayaan 2, by ISRO. On-board this historic mission was the Vikram Lander, named after Dr Vikram Sarabhai. Most unfortunately the mission came very close to achieving its unique and highly complex objective of landing the Vikram Lander on the southern pole of Moon and manoeuvring the Pragyan rower on the surface of the moon. The Vikram lander would have been extraordinary centenary tribute to Dr Sarabhai, the celebrations of which had kick started from Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad.

The PRL was kind of a crucible for the foundation of ISRO and it was in the backyard of Sarabhai house in Shahibagh, Ahmedabad that PRL was founded on 11th November 1947, before moving to the MG Science College and finally to its current location of Navrangpura campus where ISRO was conceived on third floor of the PRL building. PRL started functioning immediately, in two small rooms in the nearby M G College of Science pending the construction of its own building and facilities on a neighbouring plot of land provided by the Ahmedabad Education Society. After collecting enough funds, Sarabhai requested C V Raman to lay the foundation stone of the PRL building in 1952, which was done in the presence of Homi Bhaba, S S Bhatnagar and many other luminaries in the field of science. All the research activities in M G Science College were subsequently shifted to the new PRL campus in 1954, after it was declared open by none other than the Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

The initial focus of research at PRL was on cosmic rays, which gradually spread over to atmospheric science, theoretical physics, radio physics etc. PRL churned out the idea for the Space programme for India and was also the place where prominent ISRO scientists, Sarabhai, U R Rao,  Kasturirangan, Prof Yashpal and others were groomed and what is now described as ISRO culture was cultivated at the PRL. It was Vikram Sarabhai who put Ahmedabad on the world map of scientific and industrial research by establishing several institutes and organisations in various fields, notable among them include the PRL, Ahmedabad Textile Industries Research Association (ATIRA), Indian Institute of Management, National Institute of Design (NID), and Vikram Sarabhai Community Science Centre (VSCSC). The Community Science Center ( currently the VSCSC) set up in Ahmedabad is an important centre for educating children and general public about various branches of science. It has played an important role in ‘Science Teacher’ education. Interestingly the foundation stone of Community Science Center was laid by Sir C. V. Raman, who also delivered his famous lecture; ‘Why the sky is blue’. Darpan Art and culture centre were also started by the family (Mrinalini Sarabhai). The famed Space Application Centre (SAC/ ISRO) was set up at Ahmedabad courtesy Sarabhai and PRL, which acted as an intellectual springboard for ISRO. Incidentally most of the museum professionals and archeologists will recognise PRL for the Carbon 14 dating of their antiquity objects, which most often were carried out at the PRL. Today when we remember Dr. Sarabhai, we don’t remember him only as a scientist but we also remember him as a person with varied interests.

Vikram Sarabhai - visionary, businessman, scientist and also an art connoisseur - the sixth child among the eight children of Ambalal and Sarladevi Sarabhai, was born on the 12th, August 1919 in Ahmedabad into an illustrious Gujarati Jain business family. He had a privileged childhood and grew up in ‘The Retreat’ a colonial style mansion in which the Sarabhais lived. Among the decorated luminaries who visited the Sarabhais at the Retreat included Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Bhulabhai Desai, Rukmini Arundale, J Krishnamurthi, Prithviraj Kapoor and several others. It is therefore no wonder that Vikram Sarabhai had great vision for his country, the seeds of which were sown early on in life by the visits of such great nationalist stalwarts to his house. Nehru and Indira Gandhi also visited the Sarabhai mansion as guests. 

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore who, having spotted the spark of genius in the young Sarabhai, aged 16 years, wrote a letter of recommendation to the authorities of Cambridge University, for enrolment of Sarabhai into St Johns College, Cambridge, which he joined in 1936 and completed his natural science tripos in 1939. Tagore letter of recommendation for Sarabhai dated 01 November 1935 read ; “It is with great pleasure that I recommend the application for admission of Mr. Vikram Sarabhai. He is a young boy with a keen interest in Science and I am sure a course of study in Cambridge will be of immense value to him. I know him personally and his people. He comes from a wealthy and cultured family in the Bombay Presidency and he has a brother and a sister studying at Oxford at the moment. In my judgement, he is a fit and proper person for admission to the University” - Rabindranath Tagore.

The onset of World War II forced him to return to India. After coming back to India from Cambridge he joined the Tata Institute (now Indian Institute of Science) Bangalore to carry out research on time variation of cosmic Rays, the subject that was assigned to him by his illustrious teacher, Nobel Laureate, Sir C V Raman. The TAta institute provided a highly encouraging atmosphere for researchers, which was created by C V Raman and also Homi Bhaba, who too was at the institute where he was working on theories of mesons and cosmic ray showers. Raman was known for building low cost apparatus for experimentation and his discovery of nobel winning Raman effect ( Raman scattering of light) was the result of a low cost Raman Spectroscope, measuring instrument, which he had developed with his students at the Indian Association of Cultivation of Science, Calcutta. Sarabhai, with help from his guide Raman, built an experimental set-up with Geiger Muller counters' to carry out continuous measurements of cosmic ray intensity at Bangalore and subsequently at very high altitude at Apharwat (about 4 km above sea level) in Kashmir. Sarabhai published first scientific paper 'Time distribution of cosmic rays' in the Proceedings of the Indian Academy ofSciences in 1942. Sarabhai met his would be wife, Mrinalini Swaminathan in Bangalore. As soon as the World War II ended, Sarabhai returned back to Cambridge to finish his doctoral dissertation. In 1947, he received a doctorate from Cambridge with a thesis on "Cosmic Ray Investigation in Tropical Latitudes", the study which he had started at the Tata Institute under the supervision of Raman. Immediately after receiving his PhD, Sarabhai returned back to India. By then India was an independent nation. Sarabhai, like Bhabha, was from an aristocratic family with sound business and he too set out to carve his own ‘space’ for the development of the nation using the applications of science and technology. Sarabhai was able to persuade charitable trusts controlled by his family and friends to fund a research institution near home in Ahmedabad and the result was the formation of the Physical Research Laboratory. Thus began Sarabhai’s journey to transform India and its space aspirations.  True to his prophetic aspiration and vision, PRL played a pivotal role in the early days of the formation of ISRO.

Dr. Sarabhai had a conviction on the importance of applications of Space Technology in improving day today lives of people India. Subsequent to the successful launch of Sputnik by the Russians on the 4th of October 1957, the first man made artificial satellite to orbit the Earth in low orbit, there was a flurry of activities on space research by the Russians and Americans. And in the early years of the sixties (1962 to 1964) it had become very clear that Satellite based Meteorological Earth Observations and Space Communications will be immensely helpful for not only developed nations but also for the developing countries. Therefore Dr. Sarabhai envisaged harvesting the applications of space technology for the societal benefit of Indians. He had a vision that India should develop indigenous technology for building of satellites and launch vehicles. However, not many people in India believed that India should venture in to Space Technology primarily because both Russia and America were competing with each other in this field and spending unprecedented time and money. Against many odds Sarabhai managed to carry forward the Indian space program by convincing people at the highest echelons, including Pandit Nehru, of the possible benefit that space applications could bring to the people of India. 

In the early 1960s there were many studies which had confirmed that the equatorial region, particularly the magnetic equator is highly significant in the investigation of the Earth's magnetic field and the ionosphere, and therefore the region is most suitable for for meteorology. Considering that the magnetic equator passes over South India and that this region has tremendous influence on the dynamics of the equatorial ionosphere, Sarabhai decided to establish ‘The Equatorial Rocket Launching Station’ (TERLS) at Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram for carrying out aeronomy and astronomy experiments. By the time TERLS was established in 1968, Sarabhai had been appointed as the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, the position which was held by his illustrious colleague Dr Homi Bhabha, in May 1966 under most tragic circumstances. Dr Bhabha, the Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission, was travelling by AI - 101 Boeing 707 flight - Kanchenjunga, which was flying from Mumbai to NewYork with 117 passengers and crew onboard including Dr Bhabha, who was travelling to Vienna (via Geneva) where he was scheduled to attend a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Commission. In one of the worst air disasters, Air India flight, AI 101, crashed as it was preparing to land at Geneva airport in Switzerland, while flying over Alps near Mont Blanc, on 24th January 1996. All 106 passengers including Dr Bhabha and 11 crew members were killed in this accident.

Sarabhai, knowing the importance of the TERLS project,  fast tracked the project and the project was completed in 1968. In his inaugural speech delivered during the opening of TERLS, Sarabhai elaborated his vision for harvesting the space technology. He said “ There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the ex- plorations of the moon or the planets or manned space flight. But we are convinced that if we are to playa meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society, which we find in our country". His vision on the development of space technology and its extensive application for the betterment of society continues to be the guiding light for Indian space programme even today. 

Sarabhai envisaged harnessing the power of space science to find solutions to the problems India was facing in the field  of communication, meteorology, and education. Sarabhai thus conceived the establishment of a dedicated institute ‘Indian Space Research Organization’ for achieving this. ISRO was formed on 15th August 1969 and it was placed under the Department of Atomic Energy. Sarabhai used his scientific stature to connect with NASA, leader in space science, to  start the first experiment of commencing TV programs in rural villages in India with an objective of using TV as a medium of education for the Indian villages and the result was a successful Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) program, which received global recognition. SITE was one of the largest sociological experiments conducted anywhere in the world involving educational television broadcasting via the US satellite, ATS-6, to rural masses spread over six states and covering 2,500 villages. The SITE program was launched in 1975-76 after the death of Dr Sarabhai, and it became the first  major India-US partnership in space. This partnership has grown from strength to strength, notwithstanding the cold era period and the sanctions that India endured during this period. SITE was India’s first  attempt to use technology for education through TV broadcasts. Courtesy the success of the SITE program, India began launch of communication satellites beginning with the INSAT 1 and also brought about a revolution in establishing Low Power Transmitting TV stations from 1982, which helped India in taking giant leaps in the field of mass communication, particularly the TV transmission. Today when we see hundreds of TV channels beaming non stop content to every home, we must remember and credit and pay our homage to Dr Sarabhai who made this possible. 

Indian Space programme has now come a long way from the humble beginning of launch of our first launch vehicle - SLV- and the satellite Aryabhatta, to the current era in which ISRO is able to create, build and launch gigantic rockets, including the most successful PSLV - the work horse- and the GSLV, which carry Indian and international payloads, satellites, and complex spacecraft not just for our country but also for several other countries. Projects like the Chandrayaan, Mars Orbit Mission, built at frugal costs, not only exemplify Indian excellence in Space but also kindle an outstanding sense of Indianness among the people, particularly the children. Today, courtesy Sarabhai’s vision the Indian Space programme can rightfully claim to be in the elite club of nations. Sarabhai had a deep belief in India and her people. He was inspired by India’s yearning to be self reliant and not dependent on other nations for our every need. He did not want India to be vulnerable to pressures that would make us take decisions that would harm the nation or our people. He had a great belief in India and people in ISRO have proved him right and continue to behold a sense of needing to contribute for the nation.

Sarabhai was a doting and hands-on father to Kartikeya and Mallika, who followed their parents footsteps to become India’s celebrated luminaries in their own ways.  Mallika Sarabhai, the eminent daughter of Vikram and Mrinalini Sarabhai, during her Sarabhai Centenary conference address at the nehru Science Centre, Mumbai said that her father used to attend most of the parents meeting.  Dr Sarabhai’s wife, the noted Bharatnatyam dancer, Mrinalini Sarabhai, travelled extensively performing all across the world and it was left to Vikram Sarabhai to attend most of the parents meeting. The fatherly love and affection of Sarabhai can be seen in the way he guided his children, which Mallika emphatically stated in her address “I grew up as papa’s daughter, not as Dr Vikram Sarabhai’s. He was papa. With little time but loads of love and fun. He would whistle ‘Bridge On The River Kwai’ and have me marching around the carpet”.  The lessons that he taught to his children to think independently is something which holds value even today.  Sarabhai too was fallible and human and this could seen in his relationship with Kamla Chaudhury, who became the first Research Director of IIM Ahmedabad, which was established by Dr Sarabhai.

Dr Sarabhai received innumerable recognition and awards including the Padma Bhushan award which he received in 1966 and the Padma Vibhushan award which was awarded to him posthumously in 1972. On this 101st birthday - 12th August 2020, I join a billion plus countrymen in paying my reverence and rich tribute to this great visionary, who died so early at the age of 52 leaving behind so much of his unfinished vision for the nation. I truly believe he could have contributed much more to the nation and influenced our path as a nation differently had he been alive a little longer.  

Fortunately the organisation he built - ISRao - and the people who he mentored have left no stone unturned to live up to his expectations in contributing to the nation. May ISRO, the living embodiment of Dr Sarabhai continue to liveup to the ideals of this great Visionary for eternity. 

Long live Sarabhai and the institution he built - ISRO - in the hearts and minds of Indians.



  1. I humbly request you to link my article on "Sarabhai Crater" with your blog.
    Here is the link:


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